NEW DELHI Aug 28 India will begin deploying its first locally made supersonic combat aircraft next year and gradually phase out its ageing fleet of Russian fighters, defence officials said on Friday.
Five Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) costing about $31 million each have already been manufactured by state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and undergoing trials, while eight more will be ready by mid-2010, defence officials said.
"We can say 2012 is the key for our air force when we will not only have many LCAs, but by then we should also be able to induct more advanced multi-role fighters in the fleet," said air force spokesman Wing Commander T.K. Singha.
India started field trials to buy 126 multi-role fighter jets last week, defence officials said, moving forward on a $10.4 billion deal to modernise the air force.
Boeing's (BA.N) F/A-18 Super Hornet, France's Dassault Rafale, Lockheed Martin Corp's (LMT.N) F-16, Russia's MiG-35, Sweden's Saab (SAABb.ST) JAS-39 Gripen and the Eurofighter Typhoon, produced by a consortium of European companies, are in the race for the contract, one of the biggest in play.
"So we are looking at a scenario, where we will be able to raise our squadron strength considerably with more power," Singha said.
India wants to increase its air force squadrons from 34 (612 fighters) at present to 42 (756 fighters) by 2020 with modern aircraft.
Twenty LCAs will be deployed by 2012 and the plan is to manufacture 20 more in coordination with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), a DRDO official said in New Delhi.
"The LCA is now on track and the DRDO is very keen to produce more such aircraft indigenously," a DRDO spokesman said.
The induction of the LCAs was delayed by years of technical problems that forced scientists to go back to the drawing boards and rework the single-seat fighter's design and engines.
India's defence ministry began pushing for the LCA after the country lost nearly 200 Russian-made MiG series aircraft in crashes since 1990, blamed by the air force on manufacturing defects.
India, one of the world's biggest arms importers, plans to spend more than $30 billion over the next five years to upgrade its largely Soviet-era arsenal to counter potential threats from Pakistan and China.
"The LCA trials are in full swing and they could replace even the MiG 23 and MiG 27 if everything works to plan," said a defence official, who declined to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media. (Editing by Jerry Norton) (email@example.com; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org, +91-11-41781000))